How Politics Is Shaping the Debate on Sustainable Energy in the US

14/11/2014 11:04 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Last week's mid-term elections in the US underscored the importance of energy issues for the US electorate. Shale gas, the Keystone pipeline, the Clean Climate Plan and EPA carbon regulators were major electoral issues in many US States. Energy, it seems, will increasingly become an electoral battleground and, perhaps, a decisive electoral issue for many governments around the world, particularly here in the West.

But how detrimental is the politicization of energy issues for long-term energy and environmental sustainability?

At the centre of this debate this week was Obama's Clean Climate Plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by 30% (based on 2005 levels) by 2030. The deal was framed by Republicans as yet another big government intervention and the new House Majority leader, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, has vowed to rein in Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and its attempts to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants. Despite the IPCC warnings just days prior of irreversible environmental decline if emissions are not be drastically curtailed, the anti-Clean Climate Plan stance clearly resonated with voters.

However, the quest to achieve energy independence has proven to be somewhat more popular with both the electorate and politicians alike. The political and economic will it galvanised led to a meteoric rise in shale amongst the Atlantic basin countries. It is a phenomena that has led to significantly reduced imports of Russian gas to western countries and a consequently stronger energy security outlook for the west (particularly in Europe).

But while energy independence and achieving longer-term environmental sustainability are both vitally important, we need a popular discourse, particularly in the political arena, that does not prioritise one over the other. Both are in fact mutually inclusive. Long-term energy independence and security can only truly be achieved within the context of sourcing long-term sustainable energy that does not contribute to the kind of irreversible environmental damage the latest IPCC report warned of.

The haze of political rhetoric can also leave important issues unaddressed or insufficiently explained. For instance, while it may be expedient to speak of fast-approaching US energy independence, such an eventuality will likely not materialise any time soon because of the competitive disadvantage shale has against oil which has dipped to 82 dollars a barrel. Some experts estimate a further drop in oil prices could render shale extraction, which is significantly more expensive than extracting crude oil, unprofitable. This could off-set industry investment, which has largely been funded by cheap capital from Wall Street. Moreover, domestic US oil prices will continue to remain at the mercy of global oil markets. As such, greater control over oil supply through such projects as the Keystone pipeline will not necessarily mean sufficient control over oil pricing. This is a key reason for why the notion of an America that is energy independent enough to limit its engagement in the Middle East will probably not materialise anytime soon, particularly given only 10 percent of current US oil demand is supplied by the MENA region.

Looking forward, with Presidential elections in just two years' time and at a pivotal point in the trajectory of the US energy industry, the need for an informed, holistic discourse on energy and environment that broaches difficult political challenges like balancing longer-term sustainability with short-term gain is significant and timely. And given the polarising nature of an energy and climate debate that is often pulled towards ideological extremes and with populist rhetoric capable to reducing the complexities and hard truths of that debate to politically expedient slogans and narratives, meeting such a need will be as challenging as it is necessary.